Rancho Mirage High School, only in its second year of existence, earned its first varsity basketball playoff appearance in school history during the 2014-15 season.
Alex Copeland ’15 made sure it ended quickly.
In a second-round CIF Southern Section Division 4AA playoff game attended by the likes of the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Sondheimer and the Los Angeles Daily News’ Tony Ciniglio, the Yale-committed guard led the way with 30 points, including 22 in the first half, to carry the #6 seed Wolverines to a 75-58 win over the #9 seed Rattlers (20-9 overall, 10-2 in De Anza League) at home on Friday night.
“Our guys have looked to me to do that all year,” Copeland said to Ciniglio after the game. “Coach told me to take over this game and get us the lead.”
Early on, the Wolverines were struggling to convert from the outside, and Rancho Mirage took advantage to jump out to a quick lead. Behind the shooting of star guards Daryn Evans ’16 (13 points) and Charles Neal ’17, who had seven of his 13 points in the first frame, the Rattlers led by eight at one point, before a buzzer-beating floater by Copeland cut the lead to 20-15 after a quarter.
“We weren’t very aggressive and we weren’t hitting our shots, so I was fidgety early,” Head Coach Greg Hilliard, who will be retiring at the end of the Wolverines’ postseason run, said to Ciniglio and the HWTV live-stream crew. “You look up at [the scoreboard] and it’s like, ‘Geez, this could be my last game.'”
“They came out with a lot of energy, a lot of passion, and they’re a good team,” added Copeland, who shot 12-for-24 from the field in his third straight game with over 25 points. “We have to give them credit for that.”
However, the Wolverines weren’t willing to quit on their esteemed coach, as the squad quickly redeemed itself with a dominant second period. Hilliard adjusted the defensive scheme to put Copeland on Neal, which led to more stops for the Wolverines. Noah Gains ’15 also was key in the paint with both offensive (10 points on 5-for-6 shooting) and defensive (three blocks) contributions, as Harvard-Westlake was able to tie the game at 30 late in the first half.
“Right now any game could be my last game, so we have to come out with the same intensity in every game as if we’re not gonna play tomorrow,” said Gains, who added eight assists and a career-best 21 rebounds, the most in a game for any Wolverine since Damiene Cain ’11 pulled 21 boards in a November 2010 win over Lynwood. “In the first quarter they outhustled us and outrebounded us, and I took that to heart, so that was motivation for the rest of the game.”
At that point, the fun was merely beginning for the Wolverines.
In the last 90 seconds of the first half, Copeland individually went on a 10-0 scoring run, going 3-for-3 from the field including an NBA-range three-pointer at the buzzer that sent the large Fanatic crowd into complete hysteria. Copeland’s work put the Wolverines up 40-30 going into the half, and gave the squad momentum that it wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way.
“What I said [to Alex] was ‘This is a time when guys like you step up.’ ” Hilliard told Ciniglio. “Alex did what all good leaders do – he took it upon himself to get going.”
“I was playing with a lot of confidence, some swagger. It felt good,” Copeland added. “I was just trying to be aggressive.”
In the third, Rancho Mirage made solid defensive adjustments to contain Copeland, but Harvard-Westlake’s sophomore stars silenced the opposing crowd’s chants of “one man team.” Ali Iken ’17 started to heat up after a tough first half, connecting on three three-pointers in the second half on his way to 16 points and two steals, and classmate Carter Begel ’17 used his strength to bully his way into the paint en route to his own 16 points on 8-for-15 shooting with four assists. Good offensive work in the paint from center Bryan Talley ’18 (13 points) kept the Rattlers somewhat in contention, but Harvard-Westlake still took a 60-48 lead into the fourth.
“I wanted to build on that first half,” Copeland, who also secured four steals, said to Ciniglio. “If they weren’t going to give me shots, I’d find my teammates, and my teammates hit some big shots. I have to give them all the credit. It’s a good feeling.”
“You see the other dudes pick up on Alex’s energy,” Hilliard told HWTV.
In the fourth, Harvard-Westlake’s experience edge became prominent; the Wolverines had three senior starters, while the entire Rancho Mirage school has no seniors because of its recent inception. Frantically trying to get back into the game, the Rattlers began to turn the ball over consistently, as Iken’s shooting and Copeland’s slashing finished the job. The lead got as large as 24 points for Harvard-Westlake before the bench was cleared with two minutes remaining, as the subs closed out a 17-point playoff win.
“Coach has done more for us as players and people than we can even express, and all we can do to pay him back is to play our hardest and try to get him a ring in his last year,” said Copeland, who passed Erik Swoope ’10 to move into seventh place on the all-time school scoring list with 1449 career points.
The quest for the ring for Harvard-Westlake (14-13 overall, 4-8 in Mission League) will continue next week, as the squad is one of five Mission League teams to advance to the Division 4AA quarterfinals. The Wolverines will take on #2 seed Mission Prep (22-5 overall, 13-1 in Pac 8 League) at home on Tuesday night in an attempt to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2011. Mission Prep is coming off of a 90-67 win over Lompoc, and is currently ranked 73rd in California according to MaxPreps, compared to 126th for Harvard-Westlake.
“It’s difficult in practice to simulate a guy like [Mission Prep’s Columbia-commit Quinton Adlesh ’15],” Hilliard told HWTV. “He’s very good and their team’s very good. I think we’ll just enjoy this win for the weekend, then we’ll hit practice hard on Monday.”
“We’re looking forward to a good game against Mission Prep, and keeping this run going,” Copeland said. “[Adlesh] is another Ivy League guy, and he’s good, but personally I think that no one guy can guard me, and if they put two on me then my teammates can hit open shots.”
“We got a lot of heart, we can beat any team in these playoffs and we know it,” Gains added. “We want to shock the world — win it for us, and win it for coach.”
For those who want to re-watch Friday’s game, the live-stream can be seen via HWTV here:
The Daily News’ recap of the game can be seen here:
A post-game L.A. Times feature on Hilliard can be seen here:
In addition, Tuesday’s quarterfinal against Mission Prep will also be live-streamed. The link to Tuesday’s game can be found here: